Competing with the Twin Zephyrs

The Burlington not only had to compete with the Union Pacific in the Chicago-Denver market, it had two other entrenched rivals in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor. The routes of both of the other railroads, the Chicago & North Western and Milwaukee Road, were shorter than the Burlington’s and also served Milwaukee, while the largest city on the Burlington route was LaCrosse. While the Zephyr was still on display at the Chicago fair, the other two roads introduced 90-minute, non-step service on the 85 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee on July 15, 1934 using conventional steam locomotives and heavyweight cars.

Tests by the Burlington showed that Zephyr streamliners could cut the time required for a Chicago-to-Twin Cities trip from 10-1/2 to around six hours. Both the Milwaukee and the C&NW elected to compete with the Twin Zephyrs using equally fast trains powered by steam locomotives. Achieving that time reduction with steam locomotives, which require frequent replenishments of water and fuel, required careful planning and advance preparation.

The C&NW was the first to speed its Chicago-Twin Cities service, starting on January 2, 1935. Reflecting the fact that Chicago and the Twin Cities were about 400 miles apart and the accelerated trip would take about 400 minutes, the railroad called its new train the 400. This was also a cultural reference to the fabled 400 families that supposedly made up New York high society. In fact, the train initially required seven hours–420 minutes–to go the 409 miles between Chicago and St. Paul.

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Aboard the Denver Zephyr

The overnight Denver Zephyr left Chicago at 5:30 pm and arrived in Denver at 8:30 am, in time for a full business day. The City of Denver left Chicago at, perhaps, a slightly more convenient 6:20 pm but arrived in Denver at 9:20 am, causing business travelers to lose about an hour of the business day. The Zephyr served Lincoln, Nebraska, while the City served Cedar Rapids and Ames, Iowa.

On board the Zephyr, you might want to use a postcard to dash off a note to a friend. The postcards, naturally, advertised the train and were likely to mention the 1936 record run made from Chicago to Denver in 12 hours and 12 minutes for an average speed of 83.3 mph. Both the Zephyr and the City were scheduled to take exactly 16 hours westbound and 16 hours and 38 minutes eastbound (why does downhill take longer than uphill?), for an average speed of about 65 mph–the City was slightly faster because of a slightly longer route.

Click to download a PDF of the front and back of this postcard.

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1936 Denver Zephyrs

When, in June 1936, the Union Pacific put the M-10005 and M-10006 in daily service between Chicago and Denver, the Burlington’s own sleeping-car equipped Denver Zephyr was still five months away. To steal the Union Pacific’s thunder (and protect its mail contract), Burlington pulled the original Zephyr and the Mark Twain Zephyr from their assigned routes and used them as Advanced Denver Zephyrs, starting 18 days before the City of Denver entered service.

The real Denver Zephyrs, Zephyrs 9906 and 9907, began working in November. Though their numbers were higher than the 1936 Twin Cities Zephyrs (9904 and 9905), the streamlined Denver Zephyrs actually entered service first. The Denver Zephyrs were also much longer trains, with ten (and later twelve) cars pulled by two locomotives.

Poster advertising the Denver Zephyr emphasizes the mirror-like finish of stainless steel. Actually, the woman’s face would be highly distorted in the curved front of the locomotive. Click to download a 4.7-MB version of this poster.

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Second- and Third-Generation City Trains

Experience with the City of Portland and City of Los Angeles had proven to the Union Pacific that its first-generation streamliners were too small for anything but local service. So it cancelled its planned fourth train, the M-10003, and ordered four longer trains with more powerful, redesigned locomotives. Though these were far from motorcars, it initially retained the M-1000x numbering system.

Beginning on June 14, 1936, the M-10004 became the first City of San Francisco, running over the Chicago & North Western from Chicago to Omaha and the Southern Pacific from Ogden to Oakland. Its “automobile-style” locomotive featured shields from all three railroads and was detachable from the rest of the train. The locomotive was in two units, each one with a General Motors 1,200-HP V-16 Diesel.

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The Santa Fe Redefines Streamliners

While the Union Pacific and Burlington were certainly pioneers in the streamliner movement, other railroads introduced their own versions of streamlined trains. Some, such as Boston & Maine’s/Maine Central’s Flying Yankee, were imitations of the Zephyrs.

Others, such as Illinois Central’s Green Diamond, were imitations of the M-10000 series.

It took the Santa Fe Railway, direct competitor to the Union Pacific on the Chicago-Los Angeles route, to present the real future of streamliners. On May 12, 1936–one day before the Union Pacific began its 39-3/4-hour City of Los Angeles service using the M-10002–the Santa Fe initiated its own 39-3/4-hour train called the Super Chief. The train wasn’t streamlined at all; instead, Santa Fe demonstrated that what made streamlined trains fast was the use of Diesels instead of steam locomotives that had to make frequent and time-consuming stops for water.

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The 1935 City of Portland/1936 City of Los Angeles

The Union Pacific was so confident about the success of the M-10000 that it ordered three more similar, but longer, trains even before the M-10000 was completed. Though the power cars of these trains were outwardly identical to the M-10000, with “turrent-style” cabs, the M-10001 was initially equipped with a 900-HP Diesel instead of the M-10000’s 600-HP distillate engine.

After receiving the M-10001 in the fall of 1934, the Union Pacific sent it from Los Angeles to New York in under 57 hours, a record that stands today. The train’s average speed over this route, however, was just 57 mph, compared with the Zephyr’s 77-mph run from Denver to Chicago and later the Denver Zephyr’s 83-mph run from Chicago to Denver (which, Ralph Budd pointed out, was uphill).

So before putting the M-10001 in revenue service, Union Pacific replaced its 900-HP engine with a massive, V-16, 1,200-HP Diesel. It then put the train to work as the City of Portland, running between Chicago and Omaha on the Chicago & North Western and from Omaha to Portland on the Union Pacific, taking 39-3/4 hours each way. Considering that previous trains took between 54 and 72 hours, this was an incredible schedule. A Chicagoan going to Seattle would have to change trains in Portland and would still arrive in Seattle nearly 20 hours sooner than if they took the Empire Builder, North Coast Limited, or Olympian.

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The 1936 Twin Cities Zephyrs

In November, 1934, after the end of the Chicago fair, the Burlington put its original Zephyr (number 9900) to work between Kansas City and Lincoln, Nebraska via Omaha–something of a spit-in-the-eye to the Union Pacific, which was headquartered in Omaha. After testing the original Zephyr, the Burlington had quickly ordered several more stainless-steel trains. The first two (9901 and 9902), nearly identical to the original, became the Twin Cities Zephyrs, which started running between Chicago and Minneapolis in April, 1935. A similar Mark Twain Zephyr (9903) began operating between St. Louis and Burlington, Iowa in October, 1935.

The little Zephyrs proved far more popular than the railroad anticipated, with every seat booked and sometimes (according to reports) people standing in the aisles (or, more likely, occupying supposedly non-revenue seats in the rear lounges). So the Burlington ordered five more shovel-nosed trains that were far larger than the little three-car prototype. On December 18, 1936, two seven-car trains plus locomotives started service as the new Twin Cities Zephyrs, bumping the previous ones to service as the Ft. Worth-to-Houston Sam Houston Zephyr and the St. Louis-to-Kansas City Ozark State Zephyr.

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Expanding the M-10000

After sending the M-10000 on a tour of the country, the Union Pacific exhibited the train at the Chicago “Century of Progress” fair. For the exhibit, the railroad added one more car, the “Overland Trail,” a Pullman sleeper with 10 sections, a compartment, and a double bedroom.

For those not familiar with Pullman sleeping accommodations, sections are open seats during the day that make into upper and lower curtained-off beds at night. The compartment and double bedroom are private rooms with two beds; the main difference being that in the compartment, the beds are parallel to the tracks while the bedroom beds are perpendicular to the tracks. These are illustrated in the “Progress” brochure, which the railroad distributed to patrons of the fair. As before, parts of the brochure will appear upside down because it was printed to be folded.

Click on the image to download a 7.3-MB PDF of the entire brochure.

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Enter the Zephyr

On paper, the Burlington Zephyr was very similar to the Union Pacific M-10000. Both were lightweight, three-car trains powered by 600-horsepower internal combustion motors; both rode on articulated trucks (meaning adjacent cars shared wheel sets); both were smaller in profile than regular passenger cars.

Click on most images for a larger version.

Yet the differences between the two trains were almost as substantial as the similarities. With its resemblance to the 1934 Chrysler Airflow, the M-10000 certainly had “modern” styling, yet it looks dated today. The Zephyr, however, looks as fresh and modern today as it did in 1934. Indeed, some recent passenger locomotives have similar, if less elegant, shovel noses. The gleaming stainless steel left the brown-nosed M-10000 in the shadows. Technically, the Zephyr’s use of stainless steel and Diesel power put it a generation ahead of the M-10000.

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The M-10000

The Union Pacific Railroad won the race to put the first streamliner in service, introducing the bright yellow M-10000 to the traveling public in 1934. Built by Pullman with aluminum bodies and a distillate (kerosene) engine made by a division of General Motors, the M-10000 was supposed to be the future of passenger rail.

As it turned out, it wasn’t. The Burlington Zephyr, which was completed just weeks after the M-10000, was powered by a Diesel engine (also made by General Motors) and sheathed in stainless steel. The Zephyr, it would turn out, would be much closer to the real future of passenger trains.

Nevertheless, the bright yellow paint of the M-10000 was a refreshing change from Pullman green (though it was really a throwback to the color of many nineteenth-century passenger trains). The Union Pacific painted the roofs of most of its later passenger trains grey instead of the brown used on the M-10000.

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